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April 4, 2010

Contrasting reflections on Easter from Rachmaninoff

To complete my little series of musical reflections for that I started on Good Friday (and I'm honestly not sure what possessed me, so to speak, to start it in the first place), I thought I'd turn to Rachmaninoff, whose birthday I noted earlier in the week.

I remembered his song about Easter, "Christ is Risen," a song that is far from uplifting. The composer's setting of a poem by Dmitry Merezhkovsky carries a potent message about the failures of humanity, failures that are as obvious on this Easter Sunday as they were when Rachmnainoff composed the music in 1906:

" 'Christ is risen' they sing in the holy places, but I feel sad. My soul is silent. So much blood and so many tears are shed in the world and this song of praise before the altars offends like a mockery. If he were among us and could see the achievements of our glorious age, how brothers have come to hate one another ... if he were in the glittering churches and heard 'Christ is risen,' he would weep."

I found a fine performance of the song by a young Dmitry Hvorostovsky (he was also on my mind earlier in the week, so he seemed a perfect choice).

But I don't want to leave you with only these dark thoughts about Easter, so I've followed that clip with another piece by Rachmaninoff called "Christ is Risen," this one a movement from his sublime Vespers of 1915, and with a sacred text that provides a calming contrast to the gloom of the first piece. I hope you enjoy these reflections of Easter, from two very different sides, by the same extraordinary composer:

Posted by Tim Smith at 8:20 AM | | Comments (1)


Dear Tim, Christ is Risen! To add an additional theme to your Rachmaninoff thread, I wish to mention a piece from his Fantasie for 2 pianos, op.5, premiered in 1893 and dedicated to Tchaikovsky; namely, number 4, called The Gleeful Holiday [Easter]. It includes a verbatim musical quotation of the Orthodox Pashcal Troparion: Christ is risen from the dead / trampling down death by death / and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. PS. Rachmaninoff's date of birth is the 2nd of April, isn't it? (cf. Bertensson's book). Yours, Ivan.

Thanks for the reminder of that keyboard piece. As for the date, I know there are different ones in different sources (partly, I imagine, because of having to convert from the old Russian calendar). I chose to go with April 1st, which I found in multiple places, including my handy-dandy Boosey & Hawkes music diary. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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